Tag Archives: landscape

Druidry of place

This post was inspired by Ryan Cronin’s recent post about Druidry which you can, and should read – https://wrycrow.com/2020/05/10/druidry-of-the-real/

It got my thinking about what is unique about where I am and how I do things. The landscape here certainly does have an impact on my Druidry. One of the reasons I don’t do community ritual any more is that there is nowhere in easy walking distance where that would make sense. The wilder places are too windy, ritual shouting doesn’t do it for me. The woodlands are on slopes – again this doesn’t work well for a circle. The flatter outside places are really public, so that doesn’t work.

This has led me towards making walking and sitting out the heart of my Druidry. I make and walk labyrinths, and this is in no small part because I have space where I feel comfortable doing that. It’s something I can do in a park without feeling uneasy about other people. I managed to get one in before lockdown, but it is something I have missed doing.

Walking is affected by how the paths change through the year – where is accessible in winter, in mud or icy conditions. Where is sheltered enough from the sun for summer walking. Which paths flood in heavy rain, which ones feel unsafe in high winds.

One of the curious features of the valleys around Stroud is that where you are has a big impact on how you experience the shape of the day. The hills mean that twilight settles in some places before the sun sets in others. Dawn comes earlier on the hilltops than it does in the secluded valleys. Spring starts earlier some places than others, and across a distance of just a few miles there are all kinds of microclimates. Living here makes it hard to have a single coherent narrative about time and the seasons. I am more plural for living in this landscape.

There’s no grain in the valleys, so either I have to go out to where the grain is, or my sense of the summer grain festivals is impacted by this. We do have sheep and lambs, so my Imbolc is shaped by encountering them. We do have an abundance of hawthorn flowers and bluebells for Beltane.

On top of that, we have a local events calendar which intersects with my personal calendar. My wheel of the year has a book festival, folk festival, a theatre festival and a wassail in it, reliably, and some of the other regular events impact on me as well. Culture should be place specific.


Owl Drunk

We walked towards the full moon. On the hill, the barrow stretched out, attractive, as though a barrow on the night of the full moon would be an excellent place to lie down and sleep. As though the barrow itself was calling, inviting. I declined politely, only to be almost lost, facing what looked like a high wall. The hill can be tricksy, it has played with my perceptions before. I found the signpost that once, in fog, I mistook for a tower. I found the right path, and we made our way to the wood.

I prefer walking without a lamp, but a leafy wood is a dark place, even under the full moon. Walking by torchlight feels like moving but so little changes that it also doesn’t feel like moving. It becomes unreal quickly. Dreamlike. You walk based on the faith that your body is indeed going somewhere, but the mind sits oddly in the flesh, closer to dreaming than waking.

The woods were full of owls, calling. The undergrowth alongside the path was full of sound, alive with small, busy presences. We saw one of them. Larger creatures moved in the darkness – badger most likely. There were many bats and some of them flew close in front of us through the small circle of light.

Just as the sky was growing pale, we arrived at a local beauty spot and stopped to drink tea and look at the moon. Larks were singing long before any other bird. Here, we had an encounter with a local police officer, who had been checking the site and wanted to make sure we were ok and not intending to walk along the road – we assured her that we had come through the woods and would be safe.

We drank green tea under the full moon, raised a toast to someone we thought would appreciate that, and wished him well. And wished him safely with us.

We walked home towards the rising sun, with the woods slowly filling with colour. Bluebells, wild garlic, wood anemone, dog’s mercury, new beach leaves. On the hill, cowslips, early purple orchids and an extravagance of lark song. Owls were singing along with the dawn chorus and I thought I heard the lone voice of a curlew.

Sleep deprived, giddy, drunk on owl song, intoxicated by the dawn chorus, with a head full of hilltop, we came home. The town was swathed in mist, and the feeling of having walked in a magical realm was with is to the end.


In need of wildness

I was struggling long before lockdown with the need for wildness. I live in a beautiful part of the world, but the car noise, the careless walkers who leave bags of poo in their wake, the cyclists who treat ancient monuments as obstacles and things of that ilk had been getting to me for some time. I craved a landscape with fewer people in it, and more wild things.

Then we hit lockdown and everything got worse. The main walking and cycling routes close to my home are busier than ever in the day. Not wanting to add to that and finding it stressful, I moved to twilight walking, but as it has got warmer, ever more people are about at the end of the day. I used to spend hours walking, and the loss of time in the landscape has left me depressed and disconnected. On top of that, poor circulation and/or low blood pressure have caused me sleeping problems.

This week I decided to make some radical changes. So, rather than getting online when I wake up in the early hours, I got my walking boots on. Tom and I went out. The first time, we saw no humans. The second time we ran into a couple of people, but compared to how many folk there are out in the day, it was nothing. Narrow paths I would not have risked in the daylight became totally socially distanced. The world that I had lost opened up to me again.

I came home with the dawn chorus, euphoric. I came home able to sleep, both times, which means my sleeping has radically improved, so my head feels clearer. A tension is easing out of my body, that had come from feeling disconnected from the land. With more time outside and better access to the wild, I am more myself again and lockdown is a good deal more bearable.

There is also more wildness at night – foxes and hedgehogs, owls and others. The dawn is full of birds, and there are lots of wildflowers to appreciate as the sun comes up. With almost no other people out there, the landscape seems wilder. In darkness, familiar places become less so – there’s a lot I can work with here.

We don’t have a garden, so an hour of exercise might be considered the proper amount of outside time we can have in a day. Although guidance around how long a person can be out for varies. An hour is not enough for my mental health. I can’t walk as far as I need to in that time and it has really taken a toll on me. But if we set out in the night and see no one, I can’t see it matters how long we walk for.

I’ll keep doing this long after lockdown – walking to meet the dawn has changed my relationship with the place I live. I feel re-enchanted. Being liberated from the presence of people I have no interest in seeing is a great relief to me. In the silence, with the wild things and a most excellent walking companion, I no longer feel so lost.


Druidry and Trees

We know from the Romans that ancient Druids worshipped in Groves. While much Roman information may be dodgy propaganda, it’s hard to see what use this would serve as an invention, so I am inclined to go with it. There are reasons to think that the word ‘druid’ may be connected to ancient words for ‘oak’. We also have later things – particularly the tree version of ogham script, the poem The Battle of the Trees and Irish laws about trees that people turn to for the relationship between Druids and trees. It’s a bit speculative, but reasonable to assume that in some way, Druids were involved with trees.

There are lots of resources online for this sort of thing, if you are curious, I suggest looking around.

I feel very strongly that trees should, as far as possible, be part of the life of the modern Druid. That can take many forms, so this won’t be an exhaustive list.

Spending time in woodland to commune directly with trees. Opening up to trees as direct spiritual teachers.

Tree protection – woodlands, ancient woodlands and urban trees alike all need speaking up for. We need our trees and so many are under constant threat in the name of ‘development’.

Planting trees – urban tree planting is especially important and there’s less scope for messing up an existing eco-system through ignorance. We also need orchards, many of our historical orchards have been destroyed and we import a lot of fruit. Fruit trees are good for bees and other insects, so planting fruit trees gets a lot done.

We need more attention to trees in relation to water and flooding. Trees slow the movement of water and reduce runoff. Alders and willows are good in a wetland context, and wetlands are good at taking up carbon. Beavers and trees combine well to create natural water management systems that create and support complex eco-systems.

We need to think about trees in terms of our relationships with other countries. Rainforests are cut down to answer the desires of northern hemisphere consumers. We have to change this.

We need to think about how trees relate to the farmed landscape. Where agribusiness dominates, trees and hedges disappear in favour of being able to use large machinery. The food we eat exists in relationship to the landscape, and the presence or absence of trees. How much impact you can have on this may depend largely on your spending power, but it is something to be alert to.

Many of our relationships with trees are invisible to us. When you get on a train, the tree felling habits of the rail company are part of your relationship with trees. When woodland is cut down to make your toilet paper, that’s part of your relationship with trees. When landscapes are managed for the benefits of the few, that impacts on your relationship with trees. If you consider a spiritual relationship with trees to be part of your path, then all of these things need your care and attention.


Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill

At the weekend I went to see Johnny Coppin’s All on a Winter’s Night – a beautiful evening of seasonal music. I came home with a CD that included all of the album Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill and it has taken me on something of a journey. This album was part of the soundtrack of my childhood, and is full of songs about Gloucestershire. This is not a review for the album, but it is a wholehearted recommendation to check it out.

There are many Gloucestershire writers of course, some of whose poems are set to music on this album. Child-me knew nothing of this before I encountered the album, and had little sense of who the poets were. What struck me, between the words and the music, was the experience of having my own landscape expressed. For me, this album captures a sense of the Cotswolds and Severn Vale as an enchanted place, full of beauty and wonder. I think it likely that my sense of the possibility for enchantment in the landscape began here.

When I left the Cotswolds for the Midlands, these were the songs I turned to. I learned some of them and sang them as a way of retaining a sense of connection with the land I grew up in.

Listening to Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill as an adult, back in this landscape I’m painfully aware of what I’ve lost. I’ve been examining my feelings of disenchantment, and much of it comes down to cars. Car noise is everywhere. You can see, hear and smell them. There are rare places where the sound doesn’t permeate, and going out at night and early in the morning can be quieter. I find the intense presence of cars in the landscape a source of disenchantment. I can’t hear the wildlife, or smell what’s natural. Heavily used roads distort my experience of the land. The lanes are dangerous.

Cars do such a good job of turning the land into something we can use and consume. They insulate us, give us the big views, take away the experience of being in a place. There are so many people driving up onto the commons, and out to the beauty spots that it impacts on the very reason they are there. Leading to people traipsing round carelessly, often with dogs, leaving poos in plastic bags, filling the landscape with their noise. What could have been magical becomes a playground for those who can afford it.

I don’t know what to do about my own disenchantment. Johnny Coppin’s voice has, at times, something eerie and otherworldly about it, which I love. A quality that cuts through to the part of me that still wants to be enchanted, and reminds me that this is possible. Which mostly results in me crying pathetically, but there we go – it’s what I’ve got at the moment. Better to feel grief than to feel nothing.

No doubt the Gloucestershire poets have contributed to the making desirable of this part of the world. The weekend homes, the retired money moving in, the unaffordable villages. People come here looking for Laurie Lee and cider with Rosie and all the rest. They come here because rich and famous and royal people have come here. And there is no silence left in the hills most days where the magic can seep in.


Wilder Walking

One of the easiest ways to have a wilder walking experience, is to walk in more challenging weather conditions. If the weather is more dramatic, impacts on you, poses challenges and risks and difficulties, then the walk becomes an encounter with the elements. I wouldn’t recommend too much of this for the inexperienced walker, especially not in more treacherous landscapes. People who get too far out of their depth can be killed or injured. If you’re considering wilder walking, it’s important to know your experience level and not push too far beyond it.

In wilder weather, a landscape that is normally tame and full of landscape consumers becomes wilder. A wild landscape becomes potentially dangerous.  The sort of people who rock up in a car to air a dog don’t tend to show up in the frozen mist, the pouring rain, or the howling winds. This changes the feel of a gentler landscape significantly.

The trouble with this kind of walking is that you do need more specialist kit and that usually costs money. Getting soaked to the skin in winter is a wild and intense experience, but unless you have a really robust body, it can be an expensive one, too. I’ve never done it deliberately, although I’ve been caught out repeatedly having to walk in conditions for which I didn’t have the gear.

Stout, waterproof  boots with good grips are essential. I find waterproof trousers make the whole thing more feasible. I’ve also found that all of my waterproof coats will soak through at the shoulders and elbows especially in torrential rain. Get wet for long enough and the trousers soak through too, and water down the leg will eventually get into a waterproof boot.

This weekend I experimented with a poncho made out of the remains of a dead tent. I wore it over my regular waterproof coat. I was out for a long time and some of the rain was pretty intense – enough that it would have got through the coat in the normal scheme of things. I was delighted to find the upcycled poncho repelling water – my coat did not soak through. My scope for adventuring is much improved by this, and I’ve kept material out of landfill by successfully re-purposing it.


Consuming the landscape

I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to get to grips with the issues that underpin my depression. One of the things I’ve identified is that I have a deep need for wildness, and without the experience of wildness, I am depleted and spiritually under-nourished. This led rapidly to the question of why my immediate landscape isn’t nourishing me.

I don’t need to be miles from people, or in pristine wilderness. Some of my best ‘wild’ time in recent years was spent on the edge of the Severn – locations that certainly had other people in. I’m not automatically upset if I go for a walk and encounter other people. The presence of other people does not automatically undermine my experience of wildness.

Back in the canal days, we’d find that about 5pm, the noisy, careless people would go home, and the canal would start to feel wild again. People who came in the evening did not disrupt the experience of wildness. It is, I realise, the same here, especially in the summer.

There are a lot of popular places to take your car, dog and/or children. The landscape is full of people talking noisily and walking carelessly. Some of them stare at their phones, or play music everyone in area can hear. Some ride their mountain bikes over the barrows and insist on offroading in the woods, causing damage. The paths on the commons have expanded as they stomp carelessly through the grasses, apparently oblivious to the delicate ecosystem under their feet. Their dogs chase the skylarks. Their children pick flowers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that certain kinds of human behaviour bring disenchantment into the landscape. It is a temporary problem alleviated as soon as they are gone. I can avoid it by walking the places they don’t go – chiefly the country lanes. It helps if I stay away from the car parks. I find it distressing to encounter a stream of people for whom the land is just an amenity to use, a product to consume. It’s better in the winter because I go out and mostly they do not. It’s better at night and at twilight, but that really limits my options. It is better to walk in the week than at the weekend.

To some degree, I can flex around this. I can’t see any way to change the culture here. Wildness is everywhere, but some kinds of energy and presence from people simply wipes out the magic of that.


Folkloresque and Picturesque

I’m currently reading The Folkloresque – a collection of essays edited by Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Reading Paul Manning’s chapter on pixies in the Victorian era brought something into focus for me – the similar ways in which Victorian picturesque and folkloresque work.

The picturesque is the process of making a landscape into something to be consumed. It can mean artistic depictions but it can also mean knocking down peasant cottages to make a more pleasant view, or building a fake ruin. It’s the process of making charming landscape walks with lovely views that you can enjoy only a short distance from your large country house. It turns the living landscape into scenery for amusement. Anyone poor living in this landscape had better be quaint and appealing, or there is no place for them.

Folkloresque productions of the period take the same approach – focusing on what’s charming and delightful that can be taken from the place and sold to people for money. As with the land, the stories are made to confirm to what the money wants to buy – we are to have charm, and whimsy and something nice for the children. The people whose stories these were of course get no money from the sale of them, get no kudos for carrying them and won’t be named in person. If any of those ‘simple rural folk’ made their stories up, no one wants to know – it does not suit the Victorian folkloresque agenda. We don’t really know what the relationship between the people sharing folk tales and the folk tales really is, because the people themselves are vanished from the story landscape as much as they are from the picturesque landscape.

There is no place in the picturesque or the folkloresque landscape for the people who live, work and tell stories there. They are simply something to exploit – for their labour and their raw materials. Other people take the money. Other people get the kudos for collecting, or for improving the view. Knock down the cottage in which the storyteller lived because it isn’t pretty enough to be seen from your windows and claim the stories as your own. It’s much the same underlying logic.


Down to the river

The Severn River was a part of my landscape growing up. As I became conscious of my own Paganism, the role of the landscape, and especially the river in my sense of sacredness became ever more visible to me. It wasn’t until I left Gloucestershire and spent time living in the Midlands that I came to appreciate how important this landscape is to my sense of self. It is part of me, and to be too far away from the river is not to be properly myself.

When I’m struggling, going places I can see the Severn helps me. Yesterday I went to the river herself, and spent some time walking with my son and husband. It was a good day. I saw a heron, a kingfisher, a mouse and many tiny frogs. There were a lot of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. I got scratched and stung, and sunburned and that kind of realness of physical pain is oddly comforting.

As is usually the way of it for me, there were no moments of divine intervention. There is a Goddess associated with the Severn – Sabrina – and she has never spoken to me. I have no sense of her, only the river itself. I don’t spend enough time in that particular landscape to have built a sense of relationship. I experienced no omens or messages from the natural world to help me with the things that are troubling me. But it was good seeing the frogs and the butterflies, and the tiny scuttling mouse along the edge of a road bridge, and the heron doing heron things, and the kingfisher in just the place a kingfisher might reasonably be expected to be.

There were no massive, life changing revelations. However, the walking was so demanding that most of the time I had no headspace to consciously think about any of the things troubling me. This helped. And some hours in, I started making headway. I became able to see what my own priorities are, what matters and what perhaps does not. What I can let go of, and what I feel moved to fight for. I got a sense of perspective that helps me move forward. This often happens to me on long walks and spending time on hilltops. For me, it’s about making the space for the unconscious processing. Other people might read it in terms of messages from the land, the spirits, the Gods… but it never feels that way to me. It just feels like my own head sorting things through.


Relating to the rain

How we relate to the rain tells us a lot about our relationships with the natural world. For the person to whom rain is simply an inconvenience, or a blight on those ‘nice summer days’ there’s a disconnection with the rest of life. Rain is essential for plants and for all wild creatures. What we too often call a nice summer is often in practice, a drought.

Rain can be a massive inconvenience if, like most of our ancestors, you dry your laundry outside. Long wet patches can cause all kinds of difficulties. However, air drying the laundry saves energy and means you don’t have to own as many white goods. So even as you’re feeling challenged by the rain, you have a relationship with it that is more involved.

Rain can be a real inconvenience if you walk or cycle for transport. Getting wet and cold isn’t always a good option. In summer, the rain can prove refreshing and pleasant and be nicer than walking on a hot, dry day.

Of course heavy rain isn’t usually a blessing. It washes away soil, batters plants and makes life difficult for many creatures. Many insects struggle with very wet conditions, owls can’t hunt so readily, everything gets soaked and younger and more delicate creatures won’t necessarily survive a prolonged period of downpour. The more damaged a landscape is, the more vulnerable it is to heavy rain causing massive problems.

If you have a more involved relationship with the natural world, you’ll notice when the rain is needed, and when there’s been too much for the life around you. You’ll notice different kinds of rain – from the soft showers that soak easily into the soil to the dramatic downpours that have destructive power. You’ll know whether rain comes as a relief or a threat.

The desire to control, or avoid weather is part of how we’ve got into this mess. We’ll have worse weather to deal with as a consequence of climate change. We can choose to push back harder – driving more, building more, trying to control the water even as it becomes more uncontrollable. Or we can learn to live with it, respect it, and act in ways that reduce our impact. The harder we try to control the presence of water in our lives, the less control we are likely to have over it.